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Cuckfield ghost tale for Halloween: 17th century villain recalled in verse

Updated: Oct 31, 2020



The following verse, published during Christmas 1916, is a ‘Winter’s Tale’ with a ghoulish Halloween theme - and there is evidence that it is based on scandalous events that occurred in Cuckfield during the 17th century.

Comments and/or further information on the people and places mentioned will be gratefully received.

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 26 December 1916



Inscribed to Miss FLORENCE WHITEMAN of Lewes now in the VAD in Salonica

Cuckfield Churchyard

One bleak and dreary afternoon

I started out to find

The company that can be found

Always In winter's wind.

For there can be no loneliness

On th' open, wind-swept road;

To be with Nature and naught else

Oft lessens mental load.

I took the left at Baynton's fork,

And walked up Harvest Hill,

Passed Ansty Cross at my best speed,

And came to Caffyn's Mill.

I leant upon the parapet

On which—like a young fool!

Long years ago I ran along

Across the deep-down pool;

And, standing musing by the wall,

I heard steps—quick, then slow;

A claw was laid upon my arm,

A brisk voice said, “Hello!"

I turned, and saw old Mark Jackdaw,

Who shrewdly smiled, and said :

"I'll warrant I can guess the thoughts

Now passing through your head :

You're thinking of that woful wraith,

'The ghost at Caffyn's Mill,

The spectre of the usurer

Who lived at Harvest Hill."

"Yes," I replied," you've guessed aright,

So tell me, if you will,

How Nicholas Hardress, robbed Joan Marsh,

The widow at the Mill.

For you, upon your steeple-loft,

Surveying all below,

If that dread thing has e'er been seen,

Of it would surely know."

"Let's walk down to the Mill," he said,

"And there, beside the weir,

I'll shew you where myself have seen

The phantom on his bier.

No darker deeds can England shew

Than those of Mary's reign,

When cruelty, cloaked in piety,

Racked, tortured, burnt in vain.

Yet persecution helps no cause

Save that which it oppresses,

And persecutors do but add

To their own souls' distresses.

In those dread days of blood and fire,

At Harvest Hill there dwelt

A usurer, who fleeced the poor,

And ne'er in mercy dealt.

By fraud, by stealth, by Star-Chamber,

He bled his neighbours white,

And by assignment laid his grasp

On e'en the widow's mite.

He seized their farms, and lands, and cots,

Their horses, cows, and stacks

Of wheat and oats and maize and rye,

Their spinning-wheels and flax.

'Twas his proud boast : 'Could I but lay

My hand on Caffyn's Mill,

I'd walk on my own manors from

Cuckfield to Harvest Hill.'

John Marsh, the miller, dying, left

According to his will

To Joan his wife and children three

His granaries, land and mill.

But John in Cuckfield Church had scarce

Been laid within his vault,

Ere Hardress claimed the whole estate

For money in default.

He shewed a deed, assigning him

The granaries, mill and land;

But Joan declared the writing was

Not in her husband's hand.

Star-Chamber judges, hirelings they,

Cruel robbers in their den,

Confirmed Nick's claim,—and he was loathed

By Cuckfield's honest men.

Hired ruffians from a distant town

The devil's work completed,

And turned Joan homeless on the road,

Though piteously entreated.

She and her children refuge found

Among her neighbours kind,

But thoughts of her cruel loss and plight

Wrought havoc in her mind.

Now Joan, as was the custom then

With folk of yeoman class,

A regular attendant was

At early morning Mass.

Nicholas Hardress, - better known

As Nick of Harvest Hill— .

Attended Mass, and there was seen

By Joan of Caffyn's Mill.

The people all were on their knees,

The Host was lifted high,

When to the Altar-rails Joan rushed

With shrill and dreadful cry.

There, in the name of God and man

The usurer she cursed,

And prayed that through eternity

His soul might be amerced :

That, to the world beyond the grave,

His soul might go unblest,

His spirit roaming Caffyn's Mill

In anguish of unrest;

That, every Christmas eve, at dusk,

Beside the old mill-weir,

He in his coffin should be seen

Upon a phantom bier:

That, sitting in his grave-clothes there,

Beneath the moonlight cold,

The felon deed that ruined her

His spectre hand should hold.

'Twas that same night Nick Hardness died,

His sins all unforgiven;

Who says the widow cursed in vain?

His soul passed hence, unshriven.

The priest came spurring, riding hard,—

But Death was the first away,

And won the race!—the shuddering wretch

Was dead—and damned for aye.

They bore his coffin out by night,

Lest it should be molested;

They feared some violence to the dead,

So was the man detested.

They hurried on with trembling steps,

Their hearts aquake with fright,

It seemed to them the Devil walked

Behind them on that night!

Beside the gate of Caffyn’s mill

To watch them pass, stood Joan;

Then, as the bearers oft declared,

They heard the dead man groan.

They buried him by light of torch,

No mourner there to grieve,

And there he lies- but knows no rest

His misery to relieve."

The winter storm that shakes the sky

Cannot disturb Joan's rest;

She lies in Cuckfield's old Churchyard,

Her soul is with the blest.

At Yuletide, when the log burns bright,

Old faces reappear

And John and Joan may there be seen

And Hardress on his bier.

CHARLES EWART GRAVELY, ,' Norton," London Road, Burgess Hill.

Malcolm Davison writes: research suggests the villain of the story was Nicholas Hardham, a large landowner in Haywards Heath and Cuckfield c1638 who fell on difficult times, and was calling in on his debts.

Source: Metropolis of Mid Sussex: A History of Haywards Heath by K Wyn Ford, AC Game 1981.

Pages 9-23

Hardhams estate map is used as the jacket cover for the above book.


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